Be Still, Your Beating HeartNathan M Green
There was surprise and excitement with the news that Greece was willing to loan The British Museum various artefacts recently discovered near the Acropolis of Athens. Some believed it to be a ploy to somehow win favour in the negotiations to have the Elgin Marbles returned. The less paranoid were simply delighted to be able to host such treasures, so much so, they arranged for a Greek exhibition to tour a selected number of schools throughout Britain.
One such lucky school, St. Mary’s Church of England School in Derby, was one of the fifteen selected although the students weren’t so enthusiastic when they discovered they were going to have to sit through three hours of lectures before being able to roam freely around the secured artefacts. Adrien didn’t care because it meant she had three hours to sit next to her beloved Keith.
Keith was Adrien’s first boyfriend. She was fifteen, of average height and build. She was far beneath the radar of boys, with her mousy brown shoulder-length hair and large thick rimmed plastic glasses that hid most of her face. She didn’t have many friends and was bullied by the popular girls who teased her with the nickname ‘the bald badger’. It wasn’t until this late bloomer’s chest size exploded onto the scene, dwarfing her contemporaries, that the boys suddenly took note.
Keith was the very opposite of Adrien. He was a pretty boy, very popular, athletic and oozing confidence. He was well groomed, with manicured eyebrows, a freshly moisturised face and bleached white teeth, a living and breathing Max Headroom.
Once the lecture was over and the students were mingling with the artefacts, Keith pulled Adrien over to the Greek manuscript on the edge of the exhibition. Adrien found the illustrations compelling, running her hand over the protective glass casing, envisaging what it would be like to touch such history, much to Keith’s annoyance.
“Will you stop that, I need to tell you something,” he said.
She rested her open hands on the glass and turned her head towards Keith. “What is it?”
“You need to find someone else to take you to the Valentine’s Day dance. We’re over. I’m going to take Tracy.” He didn’t wait for a response, he walked away as Adrien stared at his vacated space. The tears took a few seconds to break free as she tried to process his words. The students filtered out of the room without her noticing. She leant over the glass casing and started crying. No one heard her, she was alone.
Her cheek was pressed against the glass with the tears pooling next to her cheek making the view of the Greek manuscript blurry. She could see something twitching through the corner of her eye. The pages were fluttering as if caught by the wind. Adrien bolted upright and placed her hands on either side of the casing as the pages flicked over a few times before finally coming to rest. She stared at the page but she couldn’t understand the ancient Greek text. The pool of tears expanded and spread over the glass until it covered the area of the page. When she looked through the tears the text had changed to English.
She was awoken from her trance by someone yelling from the door. “Hey, it’s over. You have to leave.” She looked up to see one of the curators of the exhibition gesturing for her to run along. She took a picture of the text with her phone and promptly left.
Adrien sat alone on the bus ride home, her mind occupied with Keith’s words. She didn’t want to embarrass herself in front of the other passengers. She kept taking deep breaths and tried to force her mind to think of other things. When the bus reached her stop she ran off the bus and kept running until she got home. She barged through the door and ran upstairs to her bedroom, slamming the door behind her. She grabbed her teddy, Theodore, and held him close.
Theodore had always come to her rescue. After gym class, in the communal showers, some of the girls had noticed Adrien hadn’t yet reached puberty. They mocked her for not being a woman, saying her and her flat chest made her look like a little boy. Someone shouted out “she’s the bald badger” which made all the girls laugh. She cried her way home that day and Theodore awaited her without judgement and simply provided unconditional love.
She sat up in her bed with her back supported by her puffed up pillow. Trying to keep her mind off Keith, Adrien remembered the photograph of the Greek manuscript. She took out her phone and brought up the picture. The text was clear enough to make out. She read it out loud.
To Thanatos, Fumigation from Manna.
Hear me, O Death, whose empire unconfin’d
extends to mortal tribes of ev’ry kind.
On thee, the portion of our time depends,
whose absence lengthens life, whose presence ends.
Thy sleep perpetual bursts the vivid folds
by which the soul, attracting body holds :
common to all, of ev’ry sex and age,
for nought escapes thy all-destructive rage.
Not youth itself thy clemency can gain,
vigorous and strong, by thee untimely slain.
In thee the end of nature’s works is known,
in thee all judgement is absolved alone.
No suppliant arts thy dreadful rage control,
no vows revoke the purpose of thy soul.
O blessed power, regard my ardent prayer,
and human life to age abundant spare
Adrien felt compelled to recite the whole poem. She felt uncomfortable reading it. She wasn’t a fan of discussing death ever since her grandmother had passed away last year. Theodore came to her aid once more. She sat rocking, whilst being cuddled. “We’ll get through this. We’ll get through,” she said to herself. She stopped rocking when the breath of the last word turned into a small white cloud then evaporated. She rubbed her arms as the temperature plummeted. The light from the window dropped away and the sun was swallowed by dark ferocious clouds. She backed into the wall she was leaning against, squashing the pillow whilst squeezing Theodore. A black mist rose from the floor, climbing up like an army of ants. Adrien was paralysed with fear. This was the first time she wished her mum was at home and not working.
The mist closed in on itself until it became solid. Slowly the object gained definition and changed form. When the transformation was complete something stood at the end of Adrien’s bed. It was over six feet tall, her dad was six foot and this thing would tower above him. It wore a Greek tunic fashioned from black hessian cloth. It had the form of a man, but the arms and legs looked like preserved dates; they were bones barely covered by skin. It had its head tilted forward hiding its face.
“You summoned me,” it said as it raised its head. “Who do you wish to forsake?” His face was the same as his limbs with skin drooping from a skull. The eyes looked like polished Whitby Jet stones. It was definitely a man, was, being key.
“Who are you?” said Adrien still frozen to the spot.
“I am Thanatos. I am the guide for the dead.” He spoke softly, with a foreboding calmness. “Why have you summoned me, if you do not know me?”
“I didn’t mean to, it was a mistake. I don’t want anyone dead.”
“You must. I am not summoned unless you seek the end of a life.”
Adrien’s fear no longer kept her paralysed. She lay Theodore on the bed and stood up. “I did want someone to die earlier but I was hurt. He hurt me. He tore out my heart!” Adrien explained what had happened with Keith. Thanatos was a surprisingly good listener. He offered her support and pity as she spoke. “And that’s why,” she finished her explanation. “I want him to love me, that’s all I ever wanted. I gave all of me to him.”
“If he was to give himself to you, if he was to give you his heart would you take it?” Thanatos stroked his chin as he waited for Adrien to contemplate the question.
“I would,” she said.
“I can see how you mistakenly called upon me. If you allow me I can help.” Thanatos grinned, exposing the few rotten teeth he had left.
“How?” She stepped closer, but was suddenly hit by the stench of roadkill. She retreated quickly.
“I will give him three chances to give to you willingly. A willing heart is always best. True love does not succeed without it. If he fails to give to you willingly, I will compel him.” Thanatos paced in front of the bed. “His first chance will come to him as a rose. If the gift does not urge him to come to you by the rise of the moon, then the next day you shall give him a second chance. This will come to him as a box of chocolates. If again he fails to come to you by the rise of the moon, you will give his last chance. This valentine card.” He pulled a sealed card from inside his tunic and passed it to Adrien. It was the size of A5 paper, pink with a wax seal over the lip. “Do not break the seal or the magic will be lost. Only the boy must open it and only if he fails his two chances.”
“What will it do?”
“If the boy has any feelings for you the card’s magic will encourage them, make him come to you freely. He will meet you at the entrance of the dance. If he doesn’t then I will collect.”
“The dance is only three days away.”
“Then make haste, you need to give him the rose tomorrow.” He stepped away from the bed into the middle of the room. “You have your instructions.” He dissolved into the floor and vanished. The clouds cleared outside and the sun poured in through the window. The temperature was back to normal. All that was left was the sealed valentine card.
On the way to school the next morning Adrien got off the bus one stop earlier. The school was next to an ASDA supermarket, the ideal place to get the rose and the chocolates. At school she put the chocolates in her locker, then went to wait outside Keith’s locker with the rose. He walked towards her oblivious to her presence as he was engaged in conversation with Darren Shutter. Darren was Keith’s best friend; another boy who was overly obsessed with moisturising.
Keith noticed something was blocking the way to his locker. He looked up and sighed when he recognised her face. “Let it go, Adrien. Go away.”
Undeterred, Adrien raised the rose up and offered it to him. He took it from her and she smiled.
“What the fuck Adrien?” His face turned to anger. He crushed the rose petals in his hand and threw the stem at her feet. “We’re over. Get it through your thick skull. Now fuck off.”
Adrien could feel all eyes on her. The normal commotion in the corridor stopped. She clenched her bag to her chest and ran off with her head down, managing to suppress her tears. The incident had spread around the school. Every corner had huddles of people, laughing and poking fun at her. She remained strong. She knew ultimately he would be hers and no one would dare laugh again.
With the rose failing to impress yesterday, Adrien made her way to Keith’s locker again. Giggles followed her along the corridor. It wasn’t long before Keith and Darren turned up. This time Keith saw her earlier and strode towards her.
“Adrien,” he said, but before he could continue she presented him with the chocolates. He snatched them from her hand and threw them against the locker. The chocolates flew out of the box like grenade shrapnel. “Listen to me and listen good. I only went out with you to sleep with you. You were a bet. I don’t want anything to do with you. You’re a minger. Now, FUCK OFF.” He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away from his locker.
Her composure broke as did her tears. She never expected this humiliation. The crowds weren’t laughing this time, they were silent in their pity. It hurt more than their giggles. She ran off again but this time she ditched school and went straight home.
“I don’t know if I want him now Theodore. He was horrible to me. Why would I want him. He’s a greased-up little jerk. I should have let Thanatos kill him.” She placed Theodore on the bed and she stood next to it. She called out to Thanatos several times but he never appeared. She brought up the picture of the poem to summon him but it was no longer in English, it had reverted back to ancient Greek. She looked down at the pink envelope she kept on her bedside table. “He doesn’t have any feelings for me. This card won’t work. But it will bring Thanatos back when he doesn’t come to me. I’ll ask Thanatos to kill him then. See Theodore, we will get through this. We will get through.”
There was an air of confidence to Adrien’s walk that morning. She bumped people out of the way as she forced her way through the crowd towards Keith’s locker. Today she decided to wear thick black mascara and dark red lipstick. It was so dark it made her lips look as though they had died. She didn’t hang around for Keith, she simply placed the card through one of the breather slots and walked away.
Keith assumed the card was from Tracy. There was no sign of Adrien, she must have got the message he thought. He broke the seal on the envelope and pulled out the card. The front cover read ‘To my Valentine’. It had a picture of two hands cupping and presenting a love heart. He opened it and read the verse.
Make joy your heart, for love has taken hold,
And our lives will shortly entwine.
I count my breaths and pray for strength,
To make you my Valentine.
He couldn’t help but feel warm and fuzzy inside. He placed the card in his bag and skipped off to class passing Darren in the corridor. Darren looked on in disbelief. He yelled after him, but Keith carried on skipping and humming to himself.
Adrien wasn’t sure whether to show up at the dance. She didn’t want Keith anymore and had second thoughts over his death, but part of her wanted to know if Keith did have feelings for her. She was worried about being humiliated again and thought it best if she watched the entrance to the dance from the safety of the girls’ bathroom. She peered through the door, apprehensive about what might happen.
Footsteps echoed along the corridor, getting louder with every step. The clicks from heels hitting the tiled floor came in quick bursts. It was as though the owner was looking for something. A girl wearing a white dress with a light floral print paused just past the bathroom door, close enough for Adrien to see her but too far to make out her face. The girl’s hair was tied up, folding her long brunette locks into an elegant bun.
The music became louder and clearer, then went back to an irritating thumping as a door closed. Adrien looked towards the entrance to the dance. Standing there smiling was Keith. “My love,” he said as he bounded towards the girl like an overexcited puppy. The girl turned her head coyly. It was Tracy. Adrien gripped the door handle tight, her knuckles lost all their blood. The anger rose within her.
When Keith was a few metres away from Tracy he slid along the floor on his knees, stopping before her. He took her hand, gazed into her eyes and kissed her fingers. His doe eyes made Tracy blush.
The lights started flickering. Each burst of light showed Keith’s breath hanging in the cold air. He looked up at Tracy dumbfounded. “What’s going on?” he said as he got to his feet. Tracy didn’t speak a word, her chattering teeth said everything. She rubbed her arms and shoulders, trying to warm up. Keith could see her lips turning blue and her skin become paler. His hands ached at the joints as the cold penetrated through his skin.
The lights at either end of the corridor turned off. The darkness crept along the corridor from both ends until only one light, above Keith and Tracy, remained on. Keith positioned Tracy behind him and stepped backwards, pushing her into the lockers. He placed his arms back protecting her, while he searched with his eyes, up and down the corridor. His gaze froze.
Adrien knew it was Thanatos. She opened the door and stepped into the corridor to see the black figure approaching. Keith didn’t notice Adrien’s appearance. Tracy fainted, sliding down the locker until she came to rest, sitting on the floor with her legs laying between Keith’s. He was oblivious to it as his fear froze him to the spot. Thanatos held his position in front of Keith, keeping his stare upon him. He stretched out his arm behind him, towards Adrien and called her to him with his finger. She was powerless to resist, she came over and waited by his side.
“He never came to you. I had to come. It was our deal,” Thanatos said without looking at Adrien.
“I don’t want him. You can let him go,” said Adrien looking with pity at a crying Keith.
“That was not the deal. He owes you his heart,” said Thanatos. The irritation was clear in his voice. He bent down and whispered in Keith’s ear. Keith stopped crying. His face lost all emotion. He turned his head slowly towards Adrien and took a step forward. Adrien shivered under his gaze. His eyes were black as Thanatos’. He raised his hand and began pounding on his chest with his right hand. He was hitting it fingers first. The power behind each strike made Keith recoil slightly. Blood started to soak through his white shirt.
“Stop. Stop it,” Adrien screamed. It was too late. Keith broke through. He thrust his hand into his chest and pulled out his heart. It was still beating as he offered it to Adrien.
Thanatos fired a look at Adrien. “Take it.” She could do nothing but accept the gift. “You can have his heart, I will have the rest.” Thanatos placed his hand on Keith’s shoulder. They both dissolved into a black mist and disappeared through the floor.
Tracy’s scream pierced through the music at the dance, attracting the attendees’ attention. They came pouring out into the corridor to see what was going on.
Adrien stood in the middle of the corridor, the front of her dress was stained red, her outstretched arms covered in blood with a pulsating heart in her hands.
The poem to Thanatos: Orphic Hymn 86 trans. Thomas Taylor, trans. The Hymns of Orpheus, 1792
Author Notes: Prompt driven story. Prompt was Valentine Card.
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